Carlene Carter, Stronger
If it doesn't kill you, it makes you...
It seems fair to assume that the title of Carlene Carter's first album of original material since 1995 is a recognition of the creative and perhaps redemptive possibilities of anguish.
In 2003 alone, Carter lost her boyfriend (Heartbreakers 'bassplayer Howie Epstein), mother (June Carter), stepfather (Johnny Cash) and sister (Rosey Nix Adams). However, Stronger is not — or at least not exclusively — an expression of grief: Carter has credited the album's existence substantially to her 2006 marriage to the actor Joseph Breen.
Breen is rewarded with a backing vocalist credit on "It Takes One to Know Me," which the fifty-something Carter originally wrote as a teenager, as a birthday gift for Johnny Cash (Cash's version finally appeared on 2005's The Legend box set). It's an enduringly gorgeous, heartfelt ballad, but it's in fine company on Stronger. Carter's writing is as crystal clear as her voice, and with the sole exception of the somewhat gratingly Shania-ish "On to You," Stronger is an exceptional collection of songs. "Break My Little Heart in Two" is a terrific, Loretta Lynnish rumination on the attraction of bad men, "Spider Lace" a spectral, pedal-steel-lashed waltz of startling beauty, "Judgment Day" a keening lament for love lost. A remake of her winningly deadpan 1980 hit "I'm So Cool" provides an astutely judged touch of levity.